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Does the EU's methane strategy go far enough?

Beatrice Christofaro
October 14, 2020

The European Commission has presented a strategy to curb emissions from the potent greenhouse gas methane. But environmental campaigners remain skeptical it will be enough.


From thawing permafrost, to burping cows, to leaking pipelines, there are numerous ways for the potent greenhouse gas methane to be released into the atmosphere.

While it doesn't stay there as long as carbon dioxide, methane is nearly 90 times more potent than CO2 in its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

And global emissions of methane are growing at an alarming rate. In 2017, they reached a record 596 million metric tons per year, according to the Global Methane Budget. That is about 50 million more than in the beginning of the century.

Most of these emissions come from human activities like agriculture, waste management and the fossil fuel industry.

Because methane traps so much heat during its short lifespan, curbing these man-made emissions could have an immediate effect on the climate crisis. The European Commission on Wednesday presented its plan to do just that.

Infografik Methangas Emissionen EN

Key points of the EU's methane strategy

  • The EU will help establish an international methane emissions observatory with the help of United Nations, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the International Energy Agency
  • The Commission will propose laws next year on measuring, reporting and verifying methane emissions in the energy sector
  • The Commission will also enter into diplomatic talks with countries that produce fossil fuels, as well as other countries who import fossil fuels to reduce emissions along the supply chain

The EU's track-record on methane

Europe is actually the only region in the world that has reduced its methane emissions in the past decades, but not by much

Still, the European Union needs to continue this downward trend if it wants to meet its goal of being climate neutral by 2050.

The European Union emits most of its methane through agricultural activities or from waste. But because methane is so potent and because the EU is the world's largest importer of gas, as the Commission outlines, the spotlight is also on the fossil fuel industry.

"Energy is where emissions can be cut the quickest with the least costs," Kadri Simson, the Commissioner for Energy, said in a statement.

Methane can be released when natural gas is transported through leaky pipelines, for example, or through venting and flaring, which means releasing gas into the atmosphere or burning it on purpose –often to get rid of gas that cannot be transported to market.

A person measures the methane emissions of a cow.
Agriculture is the greatest man-made source of methane.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Warnack
Waste is one of the greatest sources of methane emissions.Image: imagebroker/picture alliance

Plans puts off legislation

Next year, the Commission plans to propose laws requiring businesses to better monitor, report and verify their emissions as well as fixing leaks. It will also consider proposing a law to ban venting and flaring.

Until then, it's encouraging the industry to take these steps voluntarily.

But for campaigners like Esther Bollendorff, the EU Gas Coordinator for the Climate Action Network, this move only scratches the surface, and is not coming fast enough. 

"The Commission is dragging its feet to legislate," she told DW. "Methane emissions should be tackled at their root by starting a conversation about phase-out plans for fossil gas on the EU and national levels."

Read more - Why we should be worried about methane

Gas flaring
The European Commission is considering banning gas flaring.Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Utomi Ekpei
Methane gas being collected from waste.Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/J. West

Too much focus on data?

Environmental campaigners are criticizing the long-awaited strategy for failing to set emission limits on the energy sector. Instead, the EU's strategy released Wednesday puts the emphasis on gathering more data about these emissions in the hopes of targeting the sources of the greenhouse gas more easily. 

"Studies have shown that methane emissions in the oil and gas sector are mainly attributed to big emitters," said Marielle Saunois, an atmospheric scientist at University of Versailles Saint-Quentin and member of the Global Carbon Project.

"The detection [of these super-emitters] can be done using satellite data that show where there are leaks."

Read more: A new generation of 'hyper' satellites to prevent a climate catastrophe

Plan 'important,' but still not enough

The EU's Copernicus program is already monitoring big leaks with satellites. In 2025, the program plans to launch an additional CO2 mission that can also detect smaller sources for methane emission, among other things.

The European Commission also wants to make Tier 3 more common across the EU. This means that all the member states would have to measure their methane emissions with specific, individual calculations, as opposed to only estimating based on activity data.

"Counting emissions isn't enough when the order of the day is to reduce them," Jutta Paulus, a member of the European Parliament with the Greens, said in a statement.

But for Bollendorff, the Commission's plans are only the very beginning. She says beyond these plans, there should be talks on how to phase out gas completely, the same way some countries are doing with coal right now.

"The EU's strategy is an important first step, but we can't lose sight of the bigger picture," she said.

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